Change your Mind; and your Future
You can change the way you respond to triggers and stress; and take charge of your future.
You have the power to change your mind. Literally.
Ingrained negative habits, anxieties, fears and phobias can feel like they are part of your personality. You don't think they can be changed. You feel you have tried again and again to face up to your fears (and do it anyway); to diet, to exercise or to stick to a plan. You never seem to succeed for long and you no longer want to try; even though these negative patterns limit your life.
These most human traits are not character flaws, or personality defects. Often they are patterns of behaviour or habits embedded in your primitive mind from childhood. Conscious willpower can't change them.
But they can be changed?
Today, you can start re-programming your mind. You can take those first steps towards making more positive and healthy choices for yourself and begin laying the foundations to becoming happier, more well-balanced and more successful. But how?
How the Mind Works
The Freudian model of the mind may be familiar to you. Freud used the analogy of an iceberg to explain how the mind worked. On the surface is consciousness. Our attention is drawn to thoughts in our conscious mind here and now. This is the tip of the iceberg.
The subconscious is the hidden part of the iceberg. Buried memories in the subconscious influence our actions and drive our behaviours.
Your pre-frontal cortex (part of the conscious mind) is the part that interacts with the world and others and enables you to be aware of your interactions with others. Your pre-frontal cortex helps you plan forward, analyse what worked and what didn’t and adjust your plans going forward. But, if our highly developed pre-frontal cortex is so highly evolved, why do we sometimes become anxious, depressed and unable to function?
Your subconscious is a huge resource that provides you with sufficient wisdom and resourcefulness to enable you to cope with much of life instinctively. When your conscious mind is working for you, life is easier. You don’t have to overthink. You don’t get anxious. You don’t get depressed.
However, your subconscious mind has a primitive part called the amygdala which can scupper your best laid plans.
The development of the intellectual part of the brain came about as part of a ‘genetic accident’ that enabled human beings to imagine the future. This evolutionary development also enables you to be inventive and innovative, to solve problems and to create future possibilities. You have developed the ability to learn consciously, using your intellect, drawing from your experience and imagining outcomes. You know how to reflect back, learn and improve your plans and life on a continuous basis. That's pretty extraordinary, although it’s an ability you may not fully appreciate.
That’s because it can be derailed by anxiety, trauma, depression and irrational fears embedded in your primitive mind.
Fight, flight and depression
The amygdala - the flight, flight, depression part of the primitive mind - is the central and most important part of the primitive mind. It is closely associated with the hippocampus, which stores all our primitive, and sometimes inappropriate behavioural responses, and the hypothalamus, that regulates all the chemical responses in the body and mind.
The amygdala is essential when you are in real danger and have to act by instinct to survive. If you saw a sabre-toothed tiger appear in your garden, your primitive mind would respond by fleeing... or fighting. You wouldn't stop to think, "Didn't sabre-toothed tigers die out over 10,000 years ago?'. Like our ancestors, your fight, flight or freeze response would kick in instantly.
That fight, flight, freeze response isn’t so helpful when you have an argument with your partner, discover you are overdrawn or are made redundant. Yet, thanks to an overactive amygdala, you may react to these situations with the same panic and fear as if you were under physical threat. You know you shouldn’t. You wish you wouldn’t. But you don't seem to be able to help it.
The good news is, you can literally change your mind… with a little help. There are many ways to do it. Hypnotherapy and Neuro Linguistic Programming are two effective therapeutic approaches that can help you literally change the way your subconscious mind works. Using hypnotic language, metaphor, trance states and sometimes simply asking you to describe different outcomes and possibilities, can change your the way you think and respond surprisingly quickly.
When the mind is working effectively, it can assess situations and find solutions. Your intellectual mind will dominate your conscious awareness. R.E.M sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) helps you find solutions to problems you experienced during the day. You may have experienced going to bed at night feeling confused or concerned, and waking up in the morning with the ‘answer’. That’s your subconscious mind working for you.
While our intellectual brains continued to develop, our original, instinctive part of the mind continued to remain active. The limbic system, headed up by the amygdala, is responsible for our most basic survival. We need it. Most of us don’t live in dark and dangerous days where we face constant danger; although those who are living through war, famine or gang violence are, of course, facing very real threats. Vigilance and physical strength are needed when danger is visceral and ever-present.
Most of us, however, are lucky enough to live in a stable society where we are not at threat of violence, famine or other physically threatening uncertain events. Threats to our survival and our sense of self are ever present, but they are much more subtle. Our imagination – our ability to think about the future – can create and embed fears which dominate our waking hours. The limbic system becomes increasingly sensitive to our negative thoughts and anxieties. Our amygdala starts to scupper our intellectual minds and we don’t think clearly or rationally.
Why trauma, PTSD, anxiety and depression occur
The bad news is, you can’t control your primitive mind through willpower. The good news is that you can re-programme your subconscious so that it becomes a resource that helps, rather than hinders, you.
We are always looking for patterns. The intellectual part of the mind always looks to improve and plan forward but our limbic system is always on the alert for potential threats. Incoming information through our various senses may trigger embedded fears. Some deep primitive part of us is still on the alert for predators and threats. Survival strategies that were once useful, no longer serve you. But when you perceive a threat - and your primitive minds cannot distinguish between reality and imagination - you have seconds to decide if your life is under threat, or not. Your response is instinctive. For some, a door suddenly opening or a car alarm triggers internal panic buttons.
Any negative experience can create sensory, negative responses which can be passed on to, and stored in, your primitive minds. Traumatic events, particularly if they are repeated, create such strong emotional reactions that your limbic system retains the memory and the pattern for recalling it. The event and associated experiences feel life-threatening. Now you have installed a programme which only needs the trigger to run. This happens at a subconscious level, and sometimes is metaphorical. Any recall or trigger of the experience creates an incomprehensible state of alarm. That’s what causes your persistent anxiety, phobia or PTSD response.
The mind and body eventually need to withdraw from the perceived threat, and that can lead to depression.
Changing the pattern
Not everyone exposed to a traumatic event develops trauma. Your personality, early experiences and genetics all play a part. General ongoing stress, however, will leave you vulnerable to developing unhelpful fear responses.
When anxiety or stress levels rise, and that can happen over time so we barely notice it happening, the influence of the primitive mind increases. Put under enough stress, you might become constantly fearful and panicky. And the source of the stress might be your imagination, or negative thought patterns. Paradoxically, in these circumstances your primitive mind no longer serves a useful purpose and only adds to the stress and confusion by constantly looking for the cause of the danger. So the fear and panic become further embedded.
Luckily there are many ways to reduce anxiety and to move memories locked into the emotional, primitive brain back in to the intellectual mind, where you can retain control. Neuro Linguistic Programming is one discipline that uses a series of tried and tested therapeutic techniques to address minor traumas, anxieties, phobias and negative beliefs. Hypnotherapy is part of the NLP arsenal of tools, along with the Rewind Technique, Time Line Therapy (TM) and coaching techniques. There are also, as you know, pharmaceutical solutions and you may need to consult your doctor if your fears and anxieties are out of control; at least temporarily.
Getting back in control
Ultimately, the way most people change the negative patterns that lead to stress, fear, anxiety and depression, is to reverse the process that caused them. Thinking positively can feel impossible but, over time, with support and the right interventions, you can reduce stress and anxiety and get back in control.
There are, of course, really challenging situations that cause stress. We all know that death, divorce and moving house can be some of the most stressful events in our lives and I personally always seek support when going through a major transition in life to help me cope better with the inevitable stress and anxiety that will come. Being supported will help you cope better and get over things more quickly, and make sure there isn’t a lasting impact on your health.
What about bankruptcy, redundancy or a car accident? We wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t react to these life changing events at all. But to become clinically depressed, permanently anxious or fearful are not appropriate or helpful responses. But how often, in reality, is your stress and anxiety caused by the way you perceive life’s challenging events, rather than the reality?
Anxiety, usually the initial response to stress, is a natural consequence of living in the dangerous world inhabited by our ancestors. Depression was a response to the uncertainties of the food supply in a primitive world; hunkering down, withdrawing and using minimal energy was useful. In the modern world we have adapted these responses to stress from other sources. Losing our job may feel like we will never provide for our families. Getting divorced may be interpreted by your subconscious that you will never be loved. Being overdrawn may feel like you may starve. Some people are not able to adapt as the situation improves.
Before your initial and instinctive responses to these common set-backs sends you in to a spiral of despair, you need to change our perceptions and change your chemical and primitive responses.
Knowing that you can access a set of tools to change the way you think and feel, gives you hope you can change. And even the very act of hope can change your brain chemistry and your stress levels.
I like to imagine the amygdala as a very small vibrating creature; the hypothalamus as a tiny machine regulating the chemical responses in my body, and the hippocampus as a filing cabinet full of files storing all my bad memories and fearful behaviours. This helps me create a way of instantly calming my system. If something triggers irrational fear, I imagine wrapping my amygdala in insulating cotton wool to dampen the vibration, filling my hypothalamus with calming gel to soothe my chemical responses, and I imagine the unwanted files in my filing cabinet flying out and dissolving to clear out my bad memories.
This works for me, because our subconscious minds can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. Hypnotherapy and NLP use hypnotic language and your own imagination to change the way your perceive and experience challenging events and help you move from your primitive mind back to your conscious mind, where you are back in control.
The more you understand how your mind works, the more you can learn to take charge of your future. Right now, you can reflect back on all your successes, your resourcefulness and the ingenuity that got you to where you are today. Then, you can forgive your primitive mind for doing what it has evolved to do, and find ways to help and support you to fulfil your best hopes, dreams and plans.
The good news is you can keep changing your mind. Starting today.